Facing Stanford (3-0, No. 16 Don Best Linemakers Poll) at old Husky Stadium hasn’t worked out too well for the University of Washington (2-1) in recent years.
Perhaps switching the venue and tangling with the powerful Cardinal at the NFL Seahawks’ Century Link Field will change the Huskies’ luck.
Whatever, U-Dub could use some good vibes as it prepares for a Thursday night TV special against visiting Stanford in Seattle. And, in truth, the reason for the local venue switch has nothing to do with bad luck; on-campus Husky Stadium is undergoing a massive renovation, forcing Steve Sarkisian’s team to play home games this season downtown at the Seahawks’ plush stadium (not much of a hardship, really).
But the Huskies might have to perform like an NFL team to give them a chance vs. the visiting Tree. A check of the Don Best college football odds screen notes Stanford opening as a near-consensus 7-point favorite at almost all Nevada wagering establishments.
Kickoff will be at 9:00 p.m. (ET), with ESPN on hand to telecast the festivities. The usual Thursday night crew of Rece Davis, Jesse Palmer and David Pollack will describe the action.
Of course, U-Dub is breathing a sigh of relief that it won’t have to face Andrew Luck on Thursday night. Luck proved way too much for the Huskies to handle the past three seasons, as the new Indianapolis Colts QB led the Cardinal to wins by 34-14, 41-0 and 65-21 counts. But Luck is in the NFL these days, and if Stanford is to continue its recent series domination, it will have to do so with new Josh Nunes in the saddle.
Nunes, while not Luck, has nonetheless been making slow and steady progress in his first stint as the starter for head coach David Shaw. Nunes’ early-season numbers are rather modest (53% completions, 6 TD passes, 3 picks), but he might have come of age in the second half of Stanford’s most-recent game, the 21-14 upset of then-second ranked Southern Cal on September 15. The junior tossed a pair of second-half TD passes that night in Palo Alto, including a laser-beam 37-yarder to TE Zach Ertz to put the Cardinal in front to stay in the fourth quarter.
Still, the Stanford offense mostly revolves around punishing senior RB Stephan Taylor, who is beginning to get some peripheral Heisman mention after his 153-yard effort vs. the Trojans. Taylor, a 1,000-yard back each of the last two seasons, also has a whopping 34 TDs to his credit in his Stanford career.
In fact, Taylor’s presence, and that of the Cardinal’s patented ultra-physical infantry diversion, is likely to play a bigger role on Thursday night than Nunes’ exploits. Andrew Luck or not, the Huskies could not match up physically to the Cardinal last season, allowing Stanford a punishing 446 rushing yards in that 65-point explosion at Palo Alto.
Indeed, it’s on defense where Washington's Sarkisian hoped his side would upgrade this season after several tales of roadkill a year ago, which prompted “Sark” to relive old chum Nick Holt of his defensive coordinator duties.
Justin Wilcox, formerly in that same role at Boise State and Tennessee, was enlisted in the offseason to upgrade the Huskies’ stop unit, but so far the results have been mixed. Washington was again dominated physically by a high-ranking foe when LSU steamrollered the Huskies 41-3 at Baton Rouge on September 3. Wilcox continues to experiment with new 3-4 looks that he believes are a better fit for the Huskies’ personnel.
In that game vs. the Tigers, however, it was mostly Washington's inability to establish its own infantry diversion which caused the margin to increase exponentially. The Husky “D” was gouged for 242 rush yards that night but the Washington infantry was completely stuffed, managing just 26 rushing yards.
It’s that latter development which has Husky backers a bit concerned, as U-Dub has yet to prove it has adequately replaced graduated all-purpose RB Chris Polk, who was able to consistently slam ahead for the tough yards between the tackles the past couple of years. None of the current runners appear to possess that sort of physical component.
For the moment, the Huskies will rely upon soph RB Bishop Sankey, who recorded his first 100-yard game in the 52-13 win over Big Sky Portland State on September 15. Most of Sankey’s yardage, however, has come via his scoots to the edges; neither he nor any other back are providing the power component Polk contributed the past couple of years.
The real star of the UW offense remains junior QB Keith Price, who was generating his own Heisman buzz entering the season but has posted only modest numbers (560 yards, 4 TD passes) in the first three games. The dynamic element of last year’s U-Dub offense has also been lacking with a new set of wideouts replacing the productive Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar.
For the moment, Price is mostly looking underneath with his throws to TE Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, who already has 20 catches. The Huskies are still waiting for a big-play explosion from ballyhooed soph WR Kasem Williams, who is gaining only 10.9 yards per catch through the first three weeks.
Stanford, with six of seven returnees up front defensively from a stop unit that ranked third nationally in rush defense last season and led again by LB Shayne Skov, figures to be a tough nut for Husky runners to crack. In fact, Derek Mason’s stop unit currently ranks tops nationally in rush defense, allowing a puny 41 yards pg and a mere 1.6 ypc. And after the Cardinal pass defense kept Matt Barkley and the potent USC passing game off the scoreboard in the second half, Price’s aerial routes could also be limited.
With Luck in the fold the past two seasons, Stanford enjoyed great pointspread success away from home, covering the spread in 11 of 13 chances (10-1 as a road favorite). This, however, will be the Cardinal’s first road game of 2012.
We mentioned Stanford’s recent successes in Seattle, including three straight wins at Husky Stadium and five straight spread covers as a series visitor. Washington can only hope that the venue switch to the Seahawks’ stadium improves the Huskies’ fortunes in this matchup.